The Begging Theatre and The Prisoner Audience

or, Why I Don’t Give Money to Artists on the Subway

We’ve all been there.  Sitting on the subway, exhausted, book in hand, earbuds in, and then you see them enter. 3 teenagers each with various styles of firm-brimmed hats and freakishly double jointed shoulders. A middle aged Caribbean gentleman with 3 large drums and stool.  A full on 5piece mariachi band. That one crazy lady with the melodica.  You spot them before they even open their mouths to “pardon the interruption.” You spot them because it’s obvious. No one is thinking “Oh, I bet those 5 guys with mariachi instruments are just carrying them around because it matches their outfits.” Nope. You’re about to become the prisoner audience.

I find something inherently offensive about the idea of boarding a crowded subway, waiting for the doors to close, and then once the unsuspecting audience has no chance to escape, aggressively forcing your art into their lives for upwards of a minute and a half and then spending the rest of the 3min stint between stops, pacing the subway hat in hand, demanding to be payed for the unsolicited performance, and guilting people into “supporting live art”

Yes that was all once sentence.

It’s offensive to me both as an audience member and as a maker of art.

And yes I know how that sentence sounds too.

To an unsuspecting audience member it’s frustrating and honestly rude to force your art onto someone in a situation where they are in effect a prisoner with no escape.  Now, I’m not at all opposed to public art, out door performances, street art, street fairs, or even musicians and dancers and etc. on the subway platform.  But in those situation the audience member at least has the option to leave.  I actually love the idea of stumbling into an unsuspected artistic experience. Being accidentally profoundly moved. (There was this young poet/rapper, I came across and he was so captivating I stopped and just listened, and and by the end of his 2min piece I was feeling all the feels).

Art should captivate not capture.

Then there’s always the conclusion of the subway performance which always ends in some version of asking for a “donation” to “show your love” or to “support live art.” Which is inherently offensive because now you’re asking me to pay you for your art without asking if I wanted to even experience your art in the first place.

Now I know I have an issue with the greater idea of Begging Theatre.  The idea that art is not self sustainable and must be supported by donations, or by passing the hat at the end of a performance. It inherently devalues the art/artist to have beg for money.  Now please understand, that’s not a comment on artists individually or the act of asking for donations (I am one myself and regularly ask for donations to various kickstarter/fundraising campaigns). But there is something about the art not being strong enough to be able to speak for itself.  I don’t know.  It has something to do with the distinction between art as a hobby, art as a career, and art as a calling. Is it other people’s responsibility to fund my hobby?  To fund my calling?  If it’s actually my career then shouldn’t it be self-sustaining? I don’t know. That’s something I’m currently working through for myself.  More on that HERE when I eventually get around to it.

The thing that frustrates me about the Prisoner Audience model is that by waiting until there is no escape for your audience, is by its very act an admission that you don’t think you can get an audience any other way. That you can’t get paid for your work any other way. But despite that, (or maybe because of it) you force you art onto an audience, and then demand compensation, all the while citing “support live art.” As though it is the audience’s responsibility to pay you for this thing it didn’t even ask for, and that by the very method you’re using to force it on the audience means it’s probably not good enough to gain an audience any other way.  It’s as though I made a pair of sub-par socks.  Walked up to someone. Shoved them in her purse. Stapled the purse shut so she could get the socks out. And then said, support independent clothing makers, and asked her to pay me for the socks she bought.

There is a place for public art.

There is a place for discovery.

There is a place for patronage and asking for donations (though I’m currently working on that)

There is no place for waiting til someone has no escape, forcing your art down their throat, calling them an audience, and then demanding they pay an admission for the show they just saw.


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